The Canal du Centre at Montçeau
It seemed a good idea at the time to give Chris a history of railways in the Saône-et-Loire (The Railways of Burgundy, Patrick Bennett 2015). He has always been interested in disused railways, and we often find ourselves nosing around old railway buildings along the voie verte, the track which used to be the railway between Chalon and Mâcon, passing through Cormatin and Cluny. After looking at this book I can see more adventurous railway themed trips coming up, to railway museums at Le Creusot and Mulhouse, and days out on steam trains.
Yesterday we took advantage of the glorious weather to look at the station at Montçeau-les-Mines, a town which benefitted immensely from the introduction of the railways in the 1830s.
Montçeau station: No need to hurry, there are only five trains today
Montçeau is a town built on coal. Coal was first dug out in the early 1800s but very little was produced until the 1830s when a mining company took over and deep mines were dug. Shortly afterwards the first rails were laid to transport the coal to the Canal du Centre (constructed 1783-91) where it was loaded onto barges pulled by horses.
Barges on the Canal du Centre
Transport by rail was found to be much more efficient and by 1861 there were rail connections to the foundries at Monchanin and Paray-le-Mondial. Coal production soared.
Montçeau became a city in 1856 with 2,200 inhabitants, incorporating the outlying villages such as Blanzy and Sanvignes. A huge tract of land was sold to the mining company by the Robin de Barbentane family who owned the estate at Plessis.
The mining company was paternalistic towards its employees, building a church and graveyard in 1869 (there had already been 400 deaths from explosions), the post office in 1871 and the hospital and mairie in 1876.
The monument to the workers killed in the mines with the Mairie behind
At its peak in 1918 there were 12,700 miners extracting 2,786,500 tonnes of coal (29,000 inhabitants). Montçeau continued to boom until the mid 1960s when production dropped to 2 million tonnes, then to 1 million by 1985, In 1991 there were only 650 miners left, The mines finally closed in 2002 as it became cheaper to import coal from eastern Europe. Much of the coal had gone to fuel the nearby power station at Lucy which is currently being converted to run on gas. Of course as the mines closed there was less employment so the population of Montceau continued to decline, now 19,000 and steadily falling despite the regeneration of the town.
You can still see where the shafts were for the mines, and the lavoir (1930) is still there. Used until 1999, the lavoir was a building for washing and sorting the coal, the largest in Europe. Eleven railway tracks at its base could handle up to 840 tonnes of coal per hour. Despite being a historical monument the lavoir has been vandalised along with the two old electric locomotives inside.
The lavoir and coal trucks
Montçeau has a bad reputation, of being run down, a place of unemployment and poverty. But what we saw on our short visit was clean wide streets, lovely sculptures, interesting bridges and beautifully renovated buildings. The Canal du Centre is kept spotless and provides mooring for pleasure craft.
A lifting bridge…..
and mooring for boats
Old coal quarries have been turned into lakes and wasteland into parks. A great deal of effort and investment has been channelled into the regeneration of the area. There are new businesses with acres and acres of car parks, empty on the Sunday afternoon we were there. Notices in estate agents’ windows advertise lovely properties at half the price of houses in Cormatin or Cluny. Montçeau is definitely worth thinking about if you’re looking for a maison secondaire!